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The bus that thinks it’s a train


If you are tempted to ride El Ferrocarril Transandino, the spectacular, mountain railway linking Guayaquil and Quito, don’t imagine the Orient Express! “El Ferrocarril mas dificil del Mundo” (“The most difficult railway in the world”) is subject to cancellation, overbooking, delays, derailments and a partial service between Riobamba, Alausi and Huigra (General Elizalde). In Ecuador you have to take things as they come.

Alausi Station

We arrived in Riobamba on a Thursday evening following a long, scenic drive down the Valley of the Volcanoes and made straight for the station to confirm our booking and pick up our tickets for the following morning. We were expecting to see the venerable, brown steam engine and box car carriages depicted in promotional flyers drawn up in preparation for the next day’s excursion. Not a bit of it! The platform was forlornly empty. The only sound of activity came from an echoing engine shed where we found several disgruntled would be passengers and a harassed booking clerk locked in animated ‘Spanglish’ dialogue. Alejandra, our Ecuadorian friend, quickly established order from this chaos and discovered that the anticipated engine and carriages were out of service due to a rock slide but that a small diesel bus, converted to run on rails, had been substituted. This service had been arranged by a well known, national tour company for their own clients and unfortunately there wasn’t room for other passengers between Riobamba and Alausi. We were advised to travel by road to the latter, located along the line just before Nariz de Diablo (The Devil’s Nose). On receipt of this unwelcome intelligence we retired to Abraspungo, an atmospheric hotel with views of Volcan Chimborazo, where we discovered why the locals affectionately refer to their city as ‘Friobamba’. Warm clothing had been recommended for an early start on the train and we had come prepared with gloves, scarves and llama wool, ‘beanies’ with ear flaps to tie under the chin. We were glad of them in bed!

In the morning we raced the red train/bus to Alausi, crossing and re-crossing the tracks in a scene resembling a western film. Hardy backpackers waved to us from their perch on the roof. Indigenous children minding the black bulls that are reared in this region waved to us from the side of the road in the hope of largesse.

We arrived in the small, market town squeezed between grey mountains to find the station crowded with passengers holding tickets for an earlier service that had been derailed. An Australian in hiking boots and slouch hat was berating a guide to no avail. Under these circumstances there is nothing to do but to sit down and wait. Vendors did a roaring trade with cafesitos, banana fritters and bottled water. Long haired donkeys strayed over the tracks looking for fodder whilst their riders, wearing red and pink ponchos, snoozed in the shade of the peeling wall. They obviously knew the ropes. At 10.45 a.m. Chiva Express pulled into the station and sunburnt, pealing nosed passengers climbed stiffly down from the roof. They weren’t laughing and waving now! There was an undignified scramble for their seats and cushions by ticket holders for the derailed service.  Simultaneously, a truck pulled up on the rails in front of the ‘train’ and workmen began leisurely unloading metal girders, bricks, wooden joists and bags of cement delaying departure for another hour. The red bus finally moved off in a cloud of diesel at 11.45 a.m. to a ragged, ironic cheer from those of us hopefully awaiting its return.

The interval between ‘trains’ seemed like a good opportunity to explore the town and open our boxed lunch. Neither revealed much of interest, so we read up on the history of this remarkable line. Several attempts were made to extend it inland from Ecuador’s leading port between 1860 and 1874. The route initially followed the valley of Rio Yaguachi but eventually came up against a formidable mountain barrier.

President Eloy Alfaro signed a contract with American engineers, Harman & Morley, in 1895 and construction gathered pace. They overcame El Nariz del Diablo (The Devil’s Nose) by cutting a zig zag of diagonal tracks into the vertical escarpment up and down which a train could with difficulty manoeuvre back and forth. It is this section of the line, almost the only section currently in use, that gringos ride for the thrill and scenery, perplexing the locals for whom the train goes nowhere of any real importance. The track reached Alausi in 1902 and Riobamba in 1905. In the same year it passed the highest point on the line (Urbina 3,604m) and from then on it was all down hill. Many lives had been lost overcoming El Nariz del Diablo. Quito was reached in 1908 when the first train from Guayaquil made a ceremonial entry under arches of palm and laurel leaves. Dancing and festivities lasted four days. Later the line was extended from Sibambe to Cuenca. Another line links the northern city of Ibarra with San Lorenzo on the coast but the service is also sporadic. It doesn’t pay to rely too much on train timetables in Ecuador.

When we returned to Alausi station the same sleepers were in situ under their ponchos and enquiries of the station master produced the revelation that a new derailment had halted the 11.45 a.m. departure that was supposed to be coming back for us. It was now stuck fore and aft while workmen shovelled rock off the rails. The passengers apparently had decided to walk back. We declined to wait any longer because we wanted to view Ingapirca in good light and arrive in Cuenca by road before dark. From the road above Alausi we could see the rock fall and the sight confirmed the wisdom of our decision. We could be sitting there now!

Ingapirca, which means “Wall of the Inca”, is not Machu Picchu, nevertheless it is an Inca ceremonial site built from even, diorite blocks without mortar in an impressive setting. Ingapirca was originally an important cashaloma “place where the stars pour from the heavens”, of the Canari people who were subjugated with difficulty by Tupac Yupanqui in the mid fifteenth century. Experts dispute whether the site was a temple, a fortress or a tambo, hostelry, for courtiers along a road network that was more extensive than that of the Romans. Tupac Yupanqui married a Canari princess who bore him Huayna Capac. He was brought up in Ecuador. There are the ruins of a plaza and storage rooms three to four metres high.

Ingapirca

The Huanca (ceremonial stone) is surrounded by tumba (small stones), and the elliptical sun temple/fortress is built on a promontory dominating the valley. The line of an Incan royal road can be traced complete with efficient drainage. A chain of relay stations enabled teams of runners to carry messages across the length and breadth of the Inca Empire with amazing rapidity. The wheel was unknown. There are also the remains of a treasury, baths and houses that would have been roofed in straw. They all contain a platform for a bed and niches for the display of Inca gods. The numbers three and seven were considered significant. Huayna Capac took as a secondary wife a princess of the defeated Cacha people from the north of the country. Their son was Atahualpa. Huayna Capac had a first born son, Huascar, by his original marriage but instead of placing the entire Inca Empire in his hands as was expected (1526), he divided it north and south. Huascar ruled from Cuzco and Atahualpa from Quito. This arrangement could not be expected to last and civil war flared between the half brothers. Atahualpa was victorious but inherited a divided, weakened patrimony only to be faced with the arrival of the Spanish in 1532. We were fortunate enough to visit Ingapirca when there were few other tourists and so as dusk began to fall the scene took on a brooding, solitary magnificence that was quite awe inspiring. Then much that Ecuador has to offer is awe inspiring. In the space of a single day we had marvelled at volcanoes, an Inca site and the extraordinary challenges that face, and still face, anyone wishing to travel by rail in this fascinating corner of Latin America.

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